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Belle of bluegrass country

Novelist Linda Bruckheimer draws inspiration from her roots

Most people return from a Route 66 road trip with a few souvenirs and some photographs. Linda Bruckheimer came back with two novels, a house, farmland, an old meeting hall, a few stores, some log cabins and a school.

It’s not that she set out looking for a good story or a real estate bargain. The stories were already inside her head. And restoring run-down buildings to their former glory is hardly a steal. But she became passionate about the journey. Eleven road trips and 15 years later, she went way beyond “home again” to a whole new chapter of her life.

Before she became Mrs. Jerry Bruckheimer, the former Linda Sue Cobb was a Louisville, Ky., native who left her childhood home as a teen, crisscrossing the American landscape with her mother and siblings in pursuit of the California Dream.

“My parents were actually dodging bill collectors. They said it was my dad’s health, but we knew better than that,” Bruckheimer says with a laugh. Her dad sped out West in three days on “NoDoz and a thermos of coffee.”

Her mom took a considerably longer time to arrive with the kids. “I think she might have thought it was the best time or the last time she’d ever have that opportunity in her life.”

Bruckheimer fictionalizes that trip in her 1998 bestselling novel “Dreaming Southern,” the zany yet poignant story of Lila Mae Wooten and her children struggling to make it from Kentucky to the coast as Lila Mae’s Southern hospitality turns dysfunctional and her detours dangerous.

Though she was already an accomplished writer, having served as West Coast editor of Mirabella from 1989 to ’95 and as writer-producer of two animated specials for PBS, “Dreaming Southern” struck a chord with readers and put her on the national map.

She followed that success with the 2004 effort “The Southern Belles of Honeysuckle Way,” with Lila Mae’s children returning to Kentucky to celebrate her 75th birthday and work out the kinks in their complicated lives. The loss of Kentucky’s heritage through overdevelopment darkens the landscape.

“She really captured the heart of the South,” says former Dutton (now William Morrow) executive editor Laurie Chittenden, who worked with Bruckheimer on both books. “The people she writes about seem like people you know. There are zany side stories and relatives (who) are a little crazy. But there’s a lot of care that goes into the people in her books, a real sincerity.”

Longtime friend Marilyn Katzenberg calls Bruckheimer’s books “semiautobiographical” and cites her strong relationship with her grandmother as their inspiration.

“Her grandmother had her wits about her to the end, and Linda spent a lot of time sitting with her and talking and reminiscing,” Katzenberg recalls. “She is close with her mother as well, but her mother lives here in Los Angeles. So it was really her grandmother who drew her back there.”

What started as a passion for uncovering her family’s past grew into a near-obsession for preservation. And the Kentucky town of Bloomfield couldn’t be happier about that.

On a trip to the tiny town (population 940) to visit her grandmother, “I saw a sign on a house that was for sale,” Bruckheimer says. “And I thought, ‘Hmm. I wonder how much houses are in rural Kentucky.’ ”

She didn’t buy that house, but later fell for a dilapidated 1820 Greek revival on 50 acres of chin-high grass. It wasn’t for sale, but after letting the residents know she was interested, she became the proud owner in just nine months.

“And then it was time to break the news to You-Know-Who,” she continues. “It was ‘over-my-dead-body’ time!” But the minute her husband saw it, Bruckheimer says, it was “love at first sight.”

It took the Bruckheimers three months to restore the house (now on the National Register of Historic Places) and landscape the surrounding land. “Then we bought the farm next door and started buying more property,” she explains, “because unfortunately in rural America, and particularly in rural Kentucky, where they have issues with tobacco — because that’s been our crop — our current crop is houses.”

The destruction of green hillsides and horse farms in favor of ill-planned housing developments hit Bruckheimer like a bulldozer and moved her from genteel landowner to ardent preservationist. She began buying up land and buildings in Bloomfield’s historic downtown. She has been honored by the Kentucky Heritage Council and serves on the board of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

She believes that “people need to be more demanding of big business and say: ‘Look, this is the old Coca-Cola factory. It shut down 20 years ago. If you want to be in our community, here’s a 40,000-square-foot building. Take it or leave it.’ ”

Bruckheimer feels working with, rather than against, developers is the answer, because when things are done well, “like shopping centers or even faux villages, people love them.”

Bloomfield Mayor Ron Bobblett is grateful for her efforts: “She took interest in our downtown area, and she’s renovated a lot of our buildings that needed renovation and wouldn’t have gotten renovated otherwise.” The town created a historic district and applied for grant monies, forming a preservation committee somewhat contrarily titled Bloomfield Community of Tomorrow.

Bruckheimer’s novels and preservation efforts have brought a lot of tourists to the town, Bobblett says, and even a few Hollywood hopefuls. “They’ll even come through City Hall, asking me to recommend them. But you know, that’s not my job. I just want her to feel at home here.”

While Bloomfield does provide a sanctuary from the urban sprawl and hectic pace of L.A., Bruckheimer does admit the peace of mind she sought in Kentucky has given way to constant construction projects. But slowing down isn’t really an option for this type A personality.

As for future projects?

“Since my husband is probably going to read this,” she says with a grin, “I’d be smart to say that the end is definitely in sight. But I don’t know.”

She already has her eye on a 1920s horse ranch in Ojai, whispering, “I’m falling in love with California all over again.”

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